Over the past 10 months, attacks by Russian forces on Lviv have been sparse, nowhere near as intense as those on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, or on the frontlines in the eastern part of the country. But now, after a string of new attacks that left no area of Ukraine unscathed, even Lviv is struggling to provide crucially needed heat, water, and electricity to its 700,000 residents, as temperatures plunge below freezing every day.
On November 15, Russia launched approximately 100 missiles at targets throughout Ukraine, the largest number of strikes since Russia stepped up its campaign, on October 10. These attacks all have the same goal — to destroy Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. The day after the November attacks, the head of the Lviv Regional Military Administration, Maksym Kozytskyi, wrote in a public statement on Telegram, “During yesterday’s massive attack on Ukraine, ten enemy missiles flew into our region. Most of them were shot down by the soldiers of the [Ukrainian] Air Defence Forces.”
But despite the city’s defenses, Kozytskyi acknowledged, the attacks had left Lviv’s infrastructure critically damaged. I was on the ground at the time of the attacks — most of the city had been plunged into darkness by the time the “all clear” alerts blared on people’s phones and throughout the city. Since then, Lviv has been in emergency mode, and many citizens are still without electricity.
“It’s hard to talk about the repair of the infrastructure and its reconstruction when tomorrow it can be [struck] by the missile one more time,” Lviv’s head of the Department of Housing and Infrastructure, Oleksandr Odynets, tells me at his office in City Hall. He explains that the main problem caused by the recent strikes was damage to the electric supply network, specifically, its transformers. Odynets estimates that repairing the destruction “takes more than half a year. A lot of time is being needed to restore it.”
But winter has come, and Russia is predicted to launch further attacks in a bid to, as NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said in a press release on December 7, “Weaponise winter, to deprive civilian Ukrainians of water, of electricity, of heating.” And there is no reason to think that Lviv’s already hobbled infrastructure will be spared. In a conversation over Telegram, a spokesperson for the Lviv City Council told me, “Consequences accumulate with each new shelling, as the energy infrastructure cannot be restored so quickly,” adding, “The energy system of our city and region is an integral part of the energy system of the entire country. Therefore, the result for all regions now is a lack of electricity.”
With every missile that Ukrainian forces cannot intercept, the stakes get higher for the humanitarian aid centers in Lviv, which are already desperately working to accommodate the internally displaced people who show up at their facilities. At Lviv’s second-largest shelter, Tvoya Opora, any changes to the city’s infrastructure are felt deeply. The shelter is two stories high and has room for up to 180 citizens; when I visited, it was housing 157 people. Some are temporary stays, but more than a third have turned into long-term residents, with nowhere else to go.
The head of the shelter, Vicktoria Fiognostova, walks me through the facility, which is filled with activity: children running around, some crying; people staring at their phones as they lie on designated twin-size beds, low to the ground; women doing laundry in a separate room. But there is a heaviness in the air, a depression that comes from the displaced Ukrainians, who have nowhere to go, and also from the staff, who are terrified of what the winter and more attacks on the infrastructure will bring.
“The most horrible thing, for now, is winter — considering how they bomb our power plants, our electric substations. I don’t realize how to get through the winter,” Fiognostova tells me. For the first four months of the war, Tvoya Opora was supported by Partners Group, a private equity company out of Switzerland. After that funding dried up, the shelter received a grant from HelpAge International, in July, which ended on October 31. Then Partners Group agreed to again fund the shelter, but only till the end of the year. Fiognostova explains, “We are still searching for the financing, writing down grant applications to different organizations, because a month, our existence during winter costs $17,000.”
Fiognostova is originally from Bucha, the suburban town outside of Kyiv that has become a focal point of the war. Though liberated in April, it still shows the deep scars of Russia’s destruction and violence — including evidence of war crimes by the invaders. Fiognostova has endured many burdens from the war, not least of which is carrying the emotional weight of the displaced Ukrainians, who confide in her about their own hardships.
“I’m such a person,” she says, “which is difficult to disengage. I pass everything through myself. I cannot close myself, just listen and not react. When I stop to run around, doing something, writing something, search for some grants because the state does not support us, and we search for sponsorship abroad for utility bills, and when I do stop for a while, it starts to cover me like a shock wave, and you simply start to realize the stories that people came through, these stories I’ve heard, when you start to understand that this is the reality where we all do live in right now.”
Then she adds, “You are overwhelmed by that, and you realize that if you don’t start to work with a person, with a psychologist, you will simply burn out, and this won’t lead to something good. Right now, we do anything in an automatic mode. I cannot say we are robots, but we have all united, harnessed ourselves in this rut, and the heart that does not want to beat by its own, we just shake it and push.”
Currently, Tvoya Opora has no lights, heat, or water supply, and the center might have to buy a generator, which could cost as much as $16,000. When asked if Tvoya Opora is preparing for a case where donations stop coming in, Fiognostova says, “We really hope that we don’t have to face such a situation. We are doing everything possible, searching for money wherever possible. In case we won’t manage, we will have to close the shelter. If we won’t pay for utilities, we will simply be evicted.”
Talking to me at City Hall, Odynets notes the “exceptional cynicism” of Russia’s military. “They do perfectly understand these painful points, and they perfectly understand our situation.” Lviv is far from the frontlines of the war, it has few military bases, and Russia does not “hit power lines, which can be restored here shortly. They hit the Achilles’ heel [the transformers], and they know it very well, and they hit there.” While Odynets has a generator at home, he adds that Russia is “doing bad things, there are children, there are patients in hospital, to whom they are doing bad things.”
In April, Lviv’s city council, in partnership with Poland, created a modular camp to house 350 internally displaced Ukrainians, many coming from the east. The camp is situated on the campus grounds of the Lviv Polytechnic Center and is powered by a generator, making it self-sufficient from Lviv’s energy grid. But often, the dormitories ricochet between two extremes — sometimes they are overheated and moisture in the air causes condensation to drip from the walls; at other times, they are freezing.
In a larger container that is a designated cafeteria and laundry area, I speak with two of the camp’s residents. It is Wednesday, the day after the November 15 attacks, and a woman who asks to be referred to by her first name, “Svetlana,” is bundled up in an oversize green winter coat and an orange beanie. The generator had stopped working the night before, Svetlana claims, and she has a fever brought on by the cold in her dormitory. She and her 5-year-old daughter had lived in the Luhansk region, near the border with Russia, at the beginning of the war. She recalls to me her experiences living near the frontlines of the war at its start.
The attacks began immediately in the hours following Russia’s invasion on February 24. By early June, Luhansk had fallen entirely to Russian control. On September 30, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, announced that Luhansk, along with three other regions of Ukraine — Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia — would be annexed into Russia. Now, however, Ukraine’s recent military gains have raised the possibility that Luhansk might be retaken.
On April 20, Svetlana and her daughter were on one of the last trains traveling out of her city. The pair traveled straight to Lviv, and had been able to afford to rent an apartment until the summer, when they ran out of funds; Svetlana had to pay rent in Lviv in addition to her rent in her hometown, for an apartment that no longer had a terrace or a roof because of Russian missile attacks. Options were limited for Svetlana and her daughter, and with no income, they were forced to move into the modular camps.
Svetlana notes that there are some good aspects of the camps, such as arts and crafts sessions, adding that there are also Ukrainian and English language courses for the children, because often those coming from the east speak Russian as a first language, not what should be their native tongue. Still, the mother has concerns about the camp’s ability to withstand the winter. She once brought her daughter to the container set up as a shower, equipped with a shower head and no stalls, twice a week. But now, each shower means a walk back to their compartment with wet skin and damp hair, and if the heat is on full blast in their space, it is “like a thermos, inside hot but condensating, humid, it’s a shock to the system.”
But Svetlana admits that she is fortunate: “Some people in Odessa have no heat.” But then she adds, “I have no home to go back to, I don’t want to go back, my apartment is destroyed.” Even after the war ends, Svetlana says, she and her daughter will remain in Lviv. “My 5-year-old is in school here, she has a bright future, she had no [similar] education possibilities before the war.” Yet still, Svetlana is weary of worrying if their temporary housing can withstand the winter months.
Standing next to Svetlana when I speak to her is Iryna Sherepa, from Sievierodonetsk, another town in the region, near the Donets River. Sherepa tells me that she is ready to speak about her experiences living in the city during the height of Russia’s aggression. She recounts the war’s gruesome effects on her and her family with a serious face, holding her hands together, palms facing, in prayer form. “I am psychologically prepared to tell my story,” she tells me.
Before leaving Sievierodonetsk, Sherepa, her husband, and her 80-year-old mother were without electricity — completely cut off from the city around them but surrounded by the sound of bombs hitting the ground. There was no access to clean drinking water, and one day Sherepa and her husband watched as a Russian shell dropped right behind their neighbor, who had just come from the communal pump.
“He fell down, had to take shrapnel out of him ourselves,” she says.
Sherepa and her family fled Luhansk on April 1. She describes how while they were driving to the train station, bombs were dropping all around them, and they had to drive in a snake-like manner. She reenacts the missiles falling alongside her car, watching them “Landing, landing, landing, turn right, turn left, don’t get hit, bomb, bomb, bomb.”
Eventually, the family made it to the station, after a 36-hour journey. Putting her hand to her chest, Sherepa says that she has heard the world supports Ukraine, but that the weapons the country has now are not enough. The Russians have occupied Sievierodonestk since late May. “My home is occupied. I have no home,” Sherepa laments, before she begins to cry. Russian soldiers have lived in her family home, looting the furniture and destroying the life Sherepa and her husband had created.
“The city is 80% destroyed. There is no house that has not been impacted. It was all impacted.” At some point, the war will be over, she says, but on the street where her granddaughter once lived, the only thing left is “walls. The whole street is ruined.”
Sherepa then pulls out her phone and finds a slideshow of what her city once looked like before Russia attacked. Sievierodonestk was filled with vibrant greenery, bright-blue houses, and a mint-colored palace that operates as the city’s drama theater. After the slideshow is finished, Sherepa shows another video of the city, in ruins, with scorched buildings that had been turned gray, brown, and black from missile attacks. She then swipes through photos of burnt trees and injured civilians and other carnage that has replaced the once-scenic landscape.
“Yes. We are here,” Sherepa tells me. “We are standing here. But I want my home. I just want home.” ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, she has been corresponding with Ukrainian students, soldiers, and civilians and writing about them for the Voice.
Nazar Pavlyuk contributed to this report.
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